A Freedom House Report on the State of Democracy and Human Rights in Ukraine
One year after Ukrainian citizens elected Viktor Yanukovych as their new president, Freedom House sent an independent team of experts to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv to assess the country’s democracy and human rights situation. The assessment was conducted one month after Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from Free to Partly Free in its Freedom in the World 2011 rankings.
Until that point, Ukraine had been the only non-Baltic former Soviet state ranked in the Free category; it was one of only two countries worldwide to be downgraded to Partly Free for developments in 2010.
Freedom House, with support from the Open Society Foundations, decided to conduct this assessment for several reasons. With a population of 46 million and shared borders with the European Union (EU) and NATO member states, as well as with Russia, Ukraine is a country of vast importance. If it becomes a more established, democratic, market-oriented member of the Euro-Atlantic community, it will have a positive effect on the wider region and become a success story for its neighbors to emulate.
If it moves in a more authoritarian direction, Ukraine will not only set back its own future, but also damage hope for reform in Eurasia as a whole. Finally, the debate about Ukraine both inside the country and in the West has become rather polarized, breaking down roughly into pro- and anti-Yanukovych camps.
These concerns were reinforced by what we heard and saw during our visit. In our view, there is no question that President Yanukovych has consolidated power at the expense of democratic development. The president and his defenders credibly argue that this centralization of power is necessary if the administration is to have any chance to govern Ukraine effectively and pursue long-overdue economic reforms.
While the discipline of Yanukovych’s government is a welcome change to some, representing a departure from the paralyzing and endless bickering of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko period, it has also revealed authoritarian tendencies.
The negative effects have included a more restrictive environment for the media, selective prosecution of opposition figures, worrisome instances of intrusiveness by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), widely criticized local elections in October 2010, a pliant parliament (Verkhovna Rada), and an erosion of basic freedoms of assembly and speech. Corruption remains a huge drain on the country, and there is significant room for the situation to get even worse.
Indeed, if left unchecked, the trends set by Ukraine’s current leadership will move the country toward greater centralization and consolidation of power—that is, toward authoritarianism. The checks, if they come, must be both domestic and foreign in origin.
But while civil society remains rather vibrant, it is also dispirited, depressed after the letdown by the Orange Revolution’s leaders, and despondent over the current government’s direction. The formal opposition offers little hope, as longtime political figures fail to inspire much public confidence.
This dynamic places even more pressure and responsibility on the West to deepen its engagement, both with the Yanukovych government and with Ukrainian society, by encouraging and rewarding good performance and pushing aggressively against backsliding on democracy.
Our visit reaffirmed our belief that Ukraine’s leaders do care about what the West thinks; they seek support and approval for their policies.
And yet both the EU and the United States seem to have disengaged from Ukraine or narrowed the bilateral agenda to a few issues of strategic importance, such as nonproliferation. This is the wrong approach.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
For many, the Orange Revolution represented a high point for Ukraine’s democratic development and respect for human rights, and a marked change from the Kuchma era. Civil society activists felt emboldened, journalists felt liberated from government pressure, and the country appeared to be on track to join the Western community of nations. It did not take long, however, for the Orange Revolution to lose its luster, as its leaders descended into bickering with one another while falling sadly short of the high expectations many people had for them.
For Viktor Yanukovych, his “election victory” in 2004 was stolen from him. His victory in the 2010 poll, which was deemed free and fair by international observers, marked a remarkable political reversal. Yanukovych defeated not only Viktor Yushchenko, to whom he had lost in 2004, but also the archrival to both men, Yuliya Tymoshenko. It was his turn to run the country, and according to some observers, to deny his opponents the possibility of a similar political revival.
President Yanukovych talks about deepening Ukraine’s democratic development and integration with Europe, and his supporters, positing a contrast with the Yushchenko era, argue that there is now a more cohesive, effective government capable of actually governing the country. Yanukovych seeks to bring order to the chaos he inherited from his predecessor. His administration has successfully reduced the number of government agencies from 116 to 66, taken up 21 different reform initiatives, drafted more than 100 pieces of legislation, and launched a series of anticorruption investigations.
In short, his government has developed and is pursuing a serious reform agenda. Furthermore, during Yanukovych’s first year as president, Ukraine has made more progress in negotiations with the EU and resolved more long-standing bilateral issues with the United States than it did during several years under the Orange leaders.
But a number of actions and developments since Yanukovych became president suggest that the country is heading away from a democratic consolidation. Concentration of power, selective prosecutions of political opponents, a more intrusive SBU, the absence of checks and balances, and politicization of the judicial process are the main concerns observers cite. Our visit did little to dispel these concerns. At the same time, it would be premature to write off Ukraine as a hopeless cause.
Ukrainians, of course, will determine their own future. The West nonetheless has an important role to play. After all, it is in the interest of the EU and the United States to support an independent, sovereign, democratic Ukraine that is increasingly integrated into Europe and the global economy. But there is a glaring absence of Western attention on Ukraine these days.
Between the focus on improving relations with Russia and frustration with endless headaches in Ukraine, the West, according to many Ukrainians with whom we met, has lost interest. That is a perception, whether fair or not, that needs to be addressed head on. Because Ukraine’s leaders care about what the West thinks, it has an opportunity to influence their behavior. It is up to the EU and the United States to take advantage of that opportunity now.
In that spirit, to prevent further democratic backsliding in Ukraine, and to support constructive initiatives both inside and outside the government, the assessment team recommends the following:
· For President Yanukovych and his government:
o Rein in official harassment and monitoring of civil society and political opposition figures, and curtail the role of the SBU to ensure that it is consistent with democratic practice and protective of civil liberties.
o Halt politically motivated prosecutions carried out by the prosecutor general’s office against former leading political figures, while maintaining a credible campaign to root out corruption and foster accountability.
o Prosecute corrupt senior officials and party loyalists without regard to political affiliation to demonstrate the sincerity of government anticorruption efforts.
o Ensure that next year’s parliamentary elections meet Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) standards and work with the Venice Commission on amendments to the electoral code.
o Reject proposed legislation to regulate electronic media and adopt conflict-of-interest policies to separate government officials from media holdings.
o Dismiss Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, arguably the most polarizing official in the cabinet, for sowing unnecessary and dangerous divisions within Ukraine over issues of identity, language, and education.
· For Ukrainian civil society and media:
o Focus on what can be accomplished at both the local and the national level—every stand taken in the name of democracy and human rights is important.
o Seek a diverse media landscape that avoids control by the state or one group of oligarchs.
o Report responsibly and separate opinion from news coverage.
o Insist on immediate and transparent steps to investigate attacks, harassment, and pressure aimed at journalists, and hold those responsible to account in the legal system.
· For the United States:
o Signal U.S. alarm at the highest levels regarding Ukraine’s democratic backsliding; be clear that cooperation on strategic (for example, the removal of highly enriched uranium) and economic issues will not win Ukraine a “free pass” on democracy issues.
o Stay systematically engaged with the Yanukovych government and support constructive domestic policy initiatives on its part.
o Stress the importance of next year’s parliamentary elections and the need for these elections to pass muster with the OSCE.
o Sustain U.S. assistance to independent civil society in Ukraine while also supporting and encouraging efforts by American and international NGOs to make Ukraine a higher priority in their work.
o Expand the number of visas available for Ukrainians to study in the United States and increase other exchanges and interaction between Ukrainians and Americans.
o Press the EU to deepen its level of engagement with all sectors of Ukrainian society.
· For the European Union:
o Underscore that progress on Ukraine’s agenda with the EU is directly linked to Ukraine’s progress on meeting European democratic standards.
o Finalize agreements on free trade and association as quickly as possible and then ensure the adherence of Ukraine and its government to the values enshrined in those agreements.
o Join the United States in stressing the importance of next year’s parliamentary elections.
o Expand opportunities (for example, scholarship funding, lowering or abolishing visa fees) for Ukrainian travel and study in Europe to foster the Ukrainian population’s European orientation.
o Understand that Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community means keeping open the possibility of EU membership.
Despite the challenges facing Ukraine today, specific actions by all elements of the Ukrainian polity and civil society, as well as by the West, can put the country back on the path toward a stronger democracy and more rapid integration with Europe.